Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, Sam Young yearned for life on the road as a rock drummer.

For more than 10 years, he followed that path, playing in front of thousands while touring in rock bands DeVotchKa and The Samples. Now, after another decade of work as a composer, university instructor, and occasional studio drummer (that’s him on a vintage drum kit in the Paddington movie soundtrack), Young has found a home at the University of Iowa. 

“Starting out in rock bands and then studying classical and contemporary classical music as an academic has been a little bit of an unusual path to becoming a composer and teacher,” says Young, who was recently named an assistant professor in the UI School of Music. “But I feel at home here because the university really embraces a wide range of music. It’s such a welcoming environment.” 

Sam Young
Sam Young plays a show at the Wayne Music Festival in Philadelphia in 2022 with his current band, Kick and the Hug.

His own musical journey led him from early devotion to rock gods such as Rush drummer Neil Peart to a fascination with classical composers Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky. Now teaching music theory and composition at Iowa, Young is most often found tinkering on the piano both when teaching classes or writing his rhythm-driven compositions. 

“All music has its own thing about it that is interesting,” Young says. “Classical music and pop music each have their own interesting facets to explore, and for me, classical music was a new world of sound that I discovered later in life than maybe most composers.” 

Young spent his 20s touring with The Samples, a rock-pop band that sold a million albums in the 1990s and performed with stadium acts such as The Dave Matthews Band. In the late 1990s, he was the drummer for DeVotchKa, which would go on to wider fame after writing the score and most of the original music for the 2006 Little Miss Sunshine movie soundtrack.

Band life wasn’t always glamorous. There was an all-night van drive with DeVotchKa for a New York City band showcase that ended in a feedback-riddled set after the venue wasn’t prepared to mic the band’s unique instrumentation, which included violin and accordion. But there were also unexpected highs, like the time The Samples arrived early to an East Coast music festival to find almost no fans — only to be surprised onstage later to see more than 10,000 people gathered.  

At age 27, Young was ready for something new. He enrolled as a first-year music student at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I remember walking into the admissions office and saying, ‘I don't know what I want to do, but I'm a drummer and I want to study music,’” he says.

Sam Young
Sam Young plays a 2014 show in Boulder, Colorado, with a band called Highway 50, made up of former members of The Samples.

Inspired by early American composers during a music survey class, Young went on to earn a master’s degree in composition at Mannes, The New School’s music conservatory, followed by a PhD from UCLA in 2018. He taught there and at Pepperdine before coming to Iowa as a visiting professor in 2021. 

As a member of the relatively small circle of professional drummers turned university professors — think Questlove and the drummers for Nine Inch Nails and Semisonic — Young tries to pass along his unique blend of knowledge to his students, several of whom are presenting their work at prestigious music conferences this summer.

Already well-known for its jazz studies program, Iowa’s School of Music also boasts an impressive roster of composers. Among them are William Menefield, assistant professor of jazz studies, whose opera, Fierce, premiered with the Cincinnati Opera in 2022 and was performed at Hancher Auditorium this spring.

David Gompper, a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, has had his original works recorded by the London Royal Philharmonic, and Jean-Francois Charles, an electronic music pioneer who teaches a class on creating new instruments, recently composed a soundtrack for the 1923 silent film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

“We’re very fortunate to have Sam as a member of the new music community,” says Gompper, professor of composition and director of the Center for New Music at Iowa. “His unique approach to composition complements our faculty and will serve our students well.”

The impact of artificial intelligence on music is one of many things Young is interested in these days. He sees it as one of many transformational technologies — such as recording studios or electronic drum machines or MP3s — that could enhance and possibly even reveal human creativity. 

“All along the way, technology has caused problems and created new opportunities for musicians,” Young says. “There’s something personal about music that draws us in — a song that captures the mood of a certain summer night or falling in love. AI can replicate styles, but people will always want to hear and connect with another person’s songs and stories.”

While Young remains a West Coaster at heart, he’s fallen in love with Iowa City, where he enjoys seeing performances at The Englert or The James theaters, getting his caffeine fix at the Coffee Emporium, and taking walks at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area. Sticky-note drawings of Iowa City landmarks by his wife, Elizabeth Crawford, decorate his desk in Voxman Music Building.

“Iowa City is such a great, special place,” he says. “For its size, it really has a thriving music and art scene. As a composer, it’s a really great place to be. I’m surrounded by a lot of great musicians and ensembles. I love it here.”